Husks, Not Beans: An Ethiopian Coffee Tradition


Jerry Baldwin

Jane and I recently returned from another trip to Ethiopia, where we spent time both with specialty coffee producers (for a subsequent post) and among the Kara people in the Omo River Valley.

Among the Kara, we got the opportunity to visit and drink buno (coffee from coffee husks, see my earlier post on qishr), and I was able to add a bit to my understanding of this important part of the Kara social fabric.

We have now had buno in three of the four Kara villages, and it seems to be the first element of social life. Buno starts every day in a family's life. The preparation begins before dawn while everyone except the coffee preparer is still in bed. Morning coffee is a structured but relaxed ritual, even when there is work to do.

Gender-neutral divisions of work have not yet reached the Omo River Valley. And a hierarchy is well defined. A woman always prepares the coffee. When there are two wives, the second wife gathers the firewood, hauls the water, and makes the coffee. The first wife serves the coffee. Young Kara girls are rarely required to help with household chores. They are free to do whatever they want until they marry, but marriage ends this carefree time.

Buno is always served in the ono (the Kara home) or the gapa (a day house in the same compound) where cooking fires are kept smoldering day and night, and every guest is served buno as the first thing upon arrival. It's never prepared elsewhere, even for an important meeting.


Jerry Baldwin

The fire is stoked, the water boiled, and the coffee husks are put in the boiling water. It is then served in a half calabash according to the hierarchy I described in qishr: first, the man of the house; second, the guests; and last, the hostess. Apparently, children don't begin to drink it until their late teens.

The conversation continues along with the drinking as the coffee cools. As a man comes close to the end of his serving, he pours a small amount, perhaps a third of a cup, over his hand, then rubs his hands together like washing. It's typically the last thing a man does before he leaves. I'm told that women sometimes wash their faces with the last few ounces, though I did not observe this.

Ethiopians consume nearly half of the coffee beans they produce. I doubt whether buno/qishr is counted anywhere. Add these beverages and you have a vital element of Ethiopian life.

Among coffee growing countries, only Brasil, a modern, industrialized society, consumes a significant part of its production. Although you find Western-style coffeehouses in Ethiopian towns, the traditional treatment for a guest, whether roasted and ground coffee in the north or buno in the villages, follows a traditional structure, exhibiting an elevated social position for coffee and a hospitality that we should consider emulating.